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Like any good trust-building exercise, it started when a moment of tension took a sharp left turn into the unexpected.  I was down to visit with Jonas, an Amish carpenter, about how my associates and I were going to sell his craftsmanship on the internet.  More than a meeting of cultures, centuries were colliding.  The moment of truth came when he went to ask his apprentice sons about a few details.  Rather than turn away for privacy, Jonas simply slipped into his native language, Plattdietsch.  I caught it immediately.

I could understand what he was saying since I learned the language from my Grandmother long ago.  This was an ethical problem that had to be addressed immediately.  I spoke up before I realized what I was doing.

“Enschuldig.  Ich kanne Plattdiethsch sprach”
Jonas smiled broadly, “Du kennst unser Sprachen?”
I felt my tendency to blush rise, “Kjell ein kleine bait.  Ich kanne du verstehe.”

What I said was, “Excuse me, I can speak Plattdietsch”
Jonas was more excited to see me as a distant cousin for knowing this ancient dialect, which is why he asked, “You know our language?”  It was the knowing that mattered.
I said, “Only a little bit.  I can understand you,” but at this point I’m sure I was using Hochdeutsch, or regular German, to fill in where I had to.

From this day on, Jonas always treated me like family.  We inherently trusted each other in a way that, if you know the Amish, goes beyond yourself.  Responsibility is shared in a way that trust becomes something that just happens, something that fills in the spaces between people like mortar between bricks because without this cement you have nothing more than a pile of loose bricks.  It’s the way things are done.

I learned a lot working with my distant cousins, as I came to know them.  My Grandfather left the Bretheren long ago, a faith similar enough to the Amish that I’m sure we are blood relatives.  Trust, built by both blood and sharp displays of integrity, is what keeps the group together.

One of the interesting things about an Amish community is that they know perfectly well there is an optimal size where tasks like ice chopping and so on can be shared joyously without a lot of strife.  Somewhere around 80 families is getting big, and at 100 they divide into two communities of 50 families each.  No more than about 150 adults is what time has shown a to be the limit on a tight community.

Sociologist Robin Dunbar has studied many civilizations, and developed something called Dunbar’s Number, first popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.  Dunbar states that 150 is about the maximum number of people you can really know well enough to trust, which is to say the upper limit of any organization that needs cohesion.  The Amish of Harmony, Minnesota and Cresco, Iowa live by this as they have for centuries.

Tradition of that kind works well among the rolling hills that look like the Palatinate the Amish left behind 300 years ago, but around them is a different ancient arrangement.  In his work Republic, Plato speculated that the maximum size for a Republic is about 10,000 people – and that he didn’t know why, just that this was approximately the case.  What we now know is that the political arrangement he was describing clearly works on a “friend of a friend” basis.  If we can know about 100 or so people well enough to trust them, and they know about 100 then 10,000 is as far as we can go with a first hand introduction or recommendation.  Perhaps as high as 22,500, according to Dunbar, but there’s always some overlap.  The square counties that divide up Iowa and southern Minnesota are dotted with towns in the center of about 10,000 people each, deliberately carved out of the land to follow this classic rule.

Where this becomes interesting is in modern urban life or modern online life.  I have over 700 followers on twitter, which is to say considerably more than I can know well enough to say that I really trust them.  Who are they, and why do they have access to so much about me?  I can’t really say.

The trust that we have to place is not in individual people, but in an idea.  All  information and connection between us comes from an understanding that we expect everyone to be, at least publicly, a decent person.  That may seem like a good approach, but it greatly magnifies the Jungian concept of a face that we turn to the light and a face that we keep in the shadow.  Watching how many people appear to brag about their credentials or how successful they are leads me to wonder who they really are when the lights are low and the clock chimes 3:00 AM.

This is an old problem with cities, of course, and it’s one reason why truly urban people are often different from rural.  You simply cannot know everyone in your life to the extent you need to in order to have a deep trust and a rich community life.  When access to the world brings us into contact with 300 million people in the USofA, or nearly 7 billion people around the world, who do we trust?

All we can hope for is a small incident, an accident of time and space that gives us a moment to be at our very best.  That’s not likely among everyone we meet, however, and so an online community is unlikely to ever be based on a deep sense of trust.  That’s not a substitute for a real, in-the-flesh community life, even if you have no interest in going as deep into it as the Amish.

23 thoughts on “Trust

  1. This essay both personal and having outsides’ perspectives was a really refreshing read. Elias Rachie a Minnesota writer was big into town hall meetings. I grew up in a town of 10,000 also lived in a county seat town of 1000 for a while. Lived in South Dakota which has a population of only 600,000 which is pretty concentrated in the East where the foodstocks grow. Their politics are different somewhat less hostile.
    Meanwhile in the Big City of London (which also is prone to flooding a recent government official states that the U.K. needs a much smaller population in order to be sustainable.
    Also if you want to buy a car go to the
    Mennonite town of Steinbach Manitoba when the dollar is favorable to the Canadian currency. Check out the new film coming hopefully sooner rather than later “Winter Light” about Mexican Mennonites.

  2. This is fascinating stuff.

    Funny enough, I was just reading about the Amish again a few weeks ago, and wondering if anyone’s ever written a memoir about growing up with them. Would you happen to know this?

  3. Lauri, I am trying to be helpful here. Google amish memoirs go to google books and you can read 1 or 2 that are quite noted. One recently about forgiveness after a tragic killing has sold very well. Perhaps after reading/scanning these you may find interest in Yoder a noted founder/writer. I atended a lecture on him haven’t still quite digested it yet as I may need to find a simpler or better writer.
    Surprisingly enough many amish worked as cabinet makers in Elkhart Indiana “the RecVehicle capital (head) of the world. That area has very high unemployment now. Some RV manufacturers will go out of business and some will start producing smaller lighter models. Again Steinbach Manitoba has a hutterite living history village. Hutterites named after Joseph Hutter. Anabaptists are a fascinating bunch for our more secularized souls. My dad once served on criminal jury trial involving a young adult. The wilding concept is interesting. Again the operative word would be growing up amish/hutterite because the group identity becomes your identity much less autonomy.
    And folks the movie is Silent Light not Winter Light (that’s a swedish movie). Talking movies one I would highly commend would be “Jerusalem” from Sweden it is about 15 years old and is about a 1890’s break away religious group and the threat it poses to the original small community. Life is very complex but this movie is both simple and deeply profound.

  4. Sorry one more note. The burned over lands of New York are also discussed in the great history What Hath God Wrought. Mormonism rose from those ashes and now is thriving. Try to get past your previous conceptions, look with new eyes much less prejudgement more like a scholar and you will find many fascinating things. I’m just a reader/movie goer.

  5. Lauri, it’s funny you should mention this because part of the reason I decided to write about my experience is that I don’t know any good memoirs or other stories “From the inside”. Dan, I’ll check out what you recommended, but I can see that you had trouble with him, too.

    Telling the story from a “Strong half-step back”, as I recommend for nearly everything in “Downriver”, will be very hard. There’s a lot of distance between the Amish and the “Anglishers”, as they call them. I know I’m somewhere in between at times.

    Also, I forgot to include a link to this post from some time ago, which I think applies to the problem of building trust in the internet world:

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